Teofilo Vasquez, sociologist
CINEP, National Center for Research and Popular Education
(Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular)

The Dynamics of the Conflict in Colombia

Teofilo Vasquez

Three topics of the conflict:
1. Cause and effect between violence and the democratic state of Colombia
2. The relationship between development, poverty, and violence
3. How to characterize the armed actors

1. Most analysis use purely theoretical models, and this is inadequate because it confuses a simple statement of fact with interpretation. For instance, you can’t say that the lack of a state presence leads to violence, because what is lacking is the definition of state, e.g., the military? the federal government? the municipal governments? The parameters for a definition of democracy, as dictated by the U.S. to other countries, does not necessarily reflect the reality of other countries. In Colombia, despite 30 years of insurgency and 15 years of counterinsurgency, the state is still here, e.g. you can travel in Bogota and feel the presence of the state all around you. As is often said, Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America, with only one coup in the last century and a functioning electoral system.

2. Here is another example of a statement frequently offered as interpretation, which is patently false: that poverty causes violence. There is no statistical correlation between violence and poverty. This correlation is academically and culturally flawed. What causes violence in Colombia is not poverty but wealth. Indeed, both the paras and guerrillas are able to be violent because of their access to wealth. You could not have this kind of war in a country like Somalia where such wealth does not exist. Where this analysis is correct, is that wealth without development causes violence, if it’s not equitable or integrated. Put together these topics: that violence in Colombia is due to the absence of a strong state institution, i.e., a clear rule of law, and a lack of political capital, along with the inability to create strong social fabric. These, combined with a strong capitalist environment, create a Hobbesian situation. It’s like the colonization of the West in the United States: there was lots of wealth, gold, coal, etc., and everybody was armed and had to defend themselves, because there were no institutions to regulate social dynamics.

3. What kind of conflict is there in Colombia? Some say it is a war of two armed groups against the state. Others say we are in civil war. It’s neither. The guerrillas, paras, and armed forces each has a large support base. This is far from being a typical civil war such as in the United States or Spain. This is a specifically Colombian situation. A unique path. Irregular [i.e., guerrilla] war going on 30 years, then complicated by the addition of paras, both with access to funds via drugs. Sophisticated military capacity on both sides. You have a group of mafiosos in drug trafficking who at the same time have influence in political discourse.

Extreme right and extreme left are both involved in drug traffic. If Colombian guerrillas had followed the manual of Mao or Che, they wouldn’t exist any more. The kind of guerrillas Colombia had in the 1960’s don’t exist any more. "The FARC is no longer the FARC of the '60's; it's enough to make you cry."

One of the central theoretical points of our research is that when you look at analysis, you look at objective variables, not subjective variables. Most of the analysis applied to the conflict are based on purely theoretical models, which rely on objective (including economic) and structural criteria. Both U.S. and Marxist analysis leaves out the individual, the subjective. We have to look at the subjective variables, e.g. the stories of people involved -- e.g. the leaders of the armed actors, who came to their positions through personal trajectories. Carlos Castaño’s father was killed by guerrillas after a ransom was paid. [For another example, when Senor Vasquez tried to explain to an 8-year old boy, why his mother, an insurgent leader had been killed, he couldn’t tell him about economics, and other structural stuff.]

This isn’t an anomaly: violence creates a feeling, or a counter feeling.

Again, CINEP wants to balance the objective and subjective factors in their analysis. For instance, about 80% of people in the ranks of the armed actors are rural youth. There are many reasons the youth join. One is economic. It provides status. It makes them attractive to the opposite sex. It has to do with the relationships between individuals, i.e., with concrete hate, not abstract hate. The reality is that most people perceive the world through their family, neighborhood, and work. I like to use the English word, self, which is objective and subjective. This is what creates the bloodbath. The conflict is not just over resources and land, but over the people. Both sides want the support of the people. Both Mao and Hitler did the same. At the extreme, people lose equilibrium.

We have to invert the typical analysis. Most people say that the armed actors try to get popular support, to secure drugs and natural resources, but the drugs and natural resources are all means to acquire popular support. Further, whether paras or guerrillas, most of these youth share the (sub)cultural values of easy money, alcohol, sex, and a fascination with death. "It’s a typical aspect of certain Latin American cultures. E.g. Mexican corridos. This is a description, not a value judgement. Machismo. These values have to do with a fundamentally Mafioso culture. You’ll see this if you go into rural regions. They are like the U.S.West. Drunk men using violence to fight for gold and women. "

Vasquez employed a psychoanalytic, mimetic model: Say you have two men or women attracted to a third person, and it’s an exclusive situation. They cannot both win the object of their desire. In their attempts at "seduction," the suitors gradually look more and more alike. Although they’re enemies, it’s a game of mirrors. If either combatant knows the other will win, he kills the object of his/her desires, publicly, like any crime of passion. He does it to prove something. This explains the killings by armed actors of the civilian population. In fact, as armed actors take, lose, and re-take communities, they feel compelled to increase the violence previously experienced in the communities -- in order to punish the communities for their perceived "unfaithfulness."

E.g. the guerrillas come to a village and kill 3 people. Nobody pays attention. Then the others come in and kill 6. Then when the others come back they kill 12, etc. Thus there become big massacres and atrocities, because the contest is who can create the most terror. This process of terror and counter-terror produces the situation in which both sides look similar. Thus, two groups with apparently asymmetrical discourses use absolutely symmetrical means.

Historically, the paras represent the interests of the rural rich. The guerrillas represent the interests of the rural poor. Per Vasquez, Colombia has never achieved a rural middle class, and has never had a successful land reform.

The two models of rural development are opposed. If they were simply different, there would be no problem. But they are mutually exclusive. If it takes genocide, you commit genocide. The paramilitary model seeks to insert Colombia into the global free market economy; it has ties to agro-industry, large landholders, multinational interests and mega projects. This includes both legal and illegal crops. The way the globalized agricultural market works, coca and poppies are the only way Colombia will have a competitive advantage. But globalization cannot effectively take hold as long as there exists a guerrilla threat.

And the owners of large tracts of land are the political elite. Their model of politics is one of exclusion -- literally, to the point of killing those they would exclude. All who are not members of the Traditional Conservative and Liberal parties are considered expendable. The guerrilla model seeks to impose agrarian reform and focuses on class conflict (whereas the corporate model of the paras admits NO discourse regarding class conflict).

A book, The Social Origins of Dictatorships and Democracies, can be applied to the analysis of Colombia. There is political asymmetry between the paras and the guerrillas in that the latter want representative democracy with full inclusion, but their means is also violent. So there is symmetry in that both the paras and the guerrillas believe that only guns can win political power, and also in that they are both willing to impose their discourses on civilian populations -- neither truly being open to autonomous thinking.

There is no uniform logic to the conflict. Rather, the logic operates on three spatial levels with the varying categories of politics, military considerations, and economic considerations. Endgames include territory, population, and resources. So it is possible for both the paras and the guerrillas to include people of an extreme criminal element, as well as people of extreme gentility and moral stature.

[He showed us a map and referred to it to indicate areas of dispute and areas of control by each group.]

Arauca is in dispute because of oil. Caño Limon is the most important pipeline. [It starts in Arauca.] Antioquia has hydroelectricity, important roads, and natural resources. Most para controlled territory is in the North. And most FARC controlled territory is in the South. It’s no coincidence that the area where the DMZ used to be is relatively undeveloped. The para territory in the North is already largely in their model.

SUMMARY: To integrate Colombia into the world economic system, it’s necessary to get rid of the guerrillas. Foreign investment will not take hold before then. The guerrillas need to be asked: A) Is the revolution possible, and B) Are you the ones to carry it out?

Whereas Plan Colombia was initially characterized as fighting drugs and supporting human rights and judicial reform, now it is explicitly counter-insurgency. It obviously aggravates rather than resolves both the drug and insurgency problems.

1. Giving military equipment to the Colombian army, given the size of the army, won’t make it stronger, but will exacerbate the conflict.

2. Fumigation goes after the weakest link in the chain. The people enriching themselves off drugs are not the campesinos. You don’t see the same energy directed at the money-laundering or at the precursor chemicals, 60% of which come from Germany and Holland. Even if the fumigation were justifiable, it’s ineffective. The people just go somewhere else and cut down more trees. Since the $1.3 billion was approved, the number of hectares has gone up. The third reason that aid is a failure is it has a double morality. It doesn’t put as much energy against the traffickers. In the U.S. there are a lot of mafias distributing the drugs.

3. The way to fight drugs is to find where it goes through the fewest hands. In business, you don’t go after a competitor by going after its production. You go after its marketing.

4. Even worse is the negative effect on the environment and food security of people who live in fumigated areas.

5. The supposed aid for social purposes is an even bigger farce. First you send helicopters, then fumigation, then a little bit of aid for the victims.

It has failed to meet the three criteria for effective aid: a. integrated, b. sustainable, and c. participatory.

a. It’s not an integrated program because it’s goal is to stop people from growing coca by giving them a little money for a couple years. It ignores things that cause people to grow coca. This strategy doesn’t get to the root.

b. It’s not a sustainable model. When the money runs out, they’ll go back to what they did before. It’s not an effective strategy in the medium or long term. It’s only a public relations strategy in both countries, tied to a 4-year election process.

c. It’s not participatory. The campesinos were never asked if they wanted to be part of this. It was only a threat. Do this or we’ll fumigate or throw you in jail.

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